Disability and the Christian story: fresh perspectives in new artworks at our Cathedrals

17th May 2023

Seeing Christianity through the lens of disability is the focus for new art exhibitions opening in two of our cathedrals this summer.

New artist, Marc Bratcher’s exhibition, Disability and the Divine, seeks to reimagine central figures of the Christian tradition, and explores how physical disability relates to theology, history, art, parenthood and other issues in the 21st century in his new work which opened in Peterborough Cathedral this week.

Disability and the Divine, an exhibition by Marc Bratcher

As a severely disabled artist with cerebral palsy Marc combines available technologies and his practice involves a wide variety of disciplines including digital painting, photography and Artificial Intelligence.

Marc said:

“For many centuries there has been a tradition of representing key figures from Christianity in ways that reflect different cultural perspectives. Indeed, the entire history of western art is part of this, presenting a very Europeanised vision.  

“Disability, however, has been largely absent from the historic and artistic record. I hope to offer some new perspectives.”

Canon Tim Alban Jones, Vice Dean of Peterborough, said:

“We are very excited that the first time Disability and the Divine goes on public display will be at Peterborough Cathedral. 

“Whilst Marc’s pictures show us a different and surprising view of very familiar subjects, they are profoundly beautiful and moving. I hope they will start a conversation around the invisibility of people with disabilities both in religious and non-religious settings and challenge us to change for the better.”

The exhibition continues until 7th July.

Sheffield Cathedral is inviting visitors to “re-imagine” Paul as a person with a disability in two newly commissioned works that explore themes of disability, masculinity, and the concepts of strength and weakness. It draws inspiration from Paul’s famous ‘thorn in the flesh’.

“Reimagining Paul’ is an exhibition created to spark conversation about the apostle Paul and ask how we might interpret Paul and his letters today.

Elizabeth Tooth’s ‘St Paul of the Thorns’ is an oil painting that depicts the artist’s husband who suffers from a disabling pain condition, reimagined as Paul. The work explores themes of disability, masculinity, and the concepts of strength and weakness. It draws inspiration from Paul’s famous ‘thorn in the flesh’.

The second work is a neon text piece titled ‘I am more like this’ by Bettina Furnee. It alternates between the phrases ‘like this’ and ‘I am more’. The words on display are excerpts from one of Paul’s letters and when presented in isolation they become a statement about identity, prompting two questions: ‘like what?’ and ‘more what?’.

Reimagining Paul Sheffield cathedral

The artworks draw inspiration from Paul’s famous ‘thorn in the flesh’, which has puzzled interpreters for centuries as they have tried to work out what Paul’s ‘thorn’ might be. Some suggest Paul was disabled; others identify other battles he was facing; whatever the answer, it shows that Paul was a person struggling with his identity, and that of the faith community he was supporting.

Minor Canon Theologian at Sheffield Cathedral, the Rvd Dr Casey Strine said:

‘We are pleased and excited to host this compelling exhibition. Paul is one of the most important figures in the history of Christianity—but rarely if ever recognised as someone who lived with a hidden disability. 

“These artworks challenge us to rethink him and his writings in new and important ways. 

“I believe they will challenge the Church of England and all Christians to look afresh at how we welcome, support, and include people with disabilities in our worship and service.’

The exhibition is in the cathedral until the end of the month.

The Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Dr Pete Wilcox will speak at the Cathedral on the 25 May and reflect on how his faith and the figure of Paul have helped him to respond to his new situation. He is a cancer sufferer and has a hidden disability.  He will be joined by Dr Grace Emmett, the director and curator of Reimagining Paul who will speak on the origins of the project.

This free event is open to all, no booking necessary. Doors will open at 7:00 PM, for a 7:30 PM start.